Monday, February 21, 2011

It Was Our First Time in New Orleans

It was 1989. It was August. It was hot. It was humid.

We were walking through the French Quarter. We were hot. We were tired. We were thirsty.

There on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis stood a somewhat shabby building housing a bar and café. Maybe we could get a glass of iced tea and cool off? We went in and were asked if we wanted a seat in the bar or in the courtyard.

“Is the courtyard shaded?” I asked.

“Yes, and we have ceiling fans.” was the reply. Soon we were seated in the courtyard with glasses of iced tea and an antipasto plate listening to opera over the sound system. Thus began our love affair with the Napoleon House.

“Few places capture the essence of New Orleans like the Napoleon House: A 200-year-old landmark that's as casual and unique as its French Quarter surroundings…. The building's first occupant, Nicholas Girod, was mayor of New Orleans from 1812 to 1815. He offered his residence to Napoleon in 1821 as a refuge during his exile…. Napoleon never made it, but the name stuck…. Owned and operated by the Impastato family since 1914, it's a place that suspends you in time, where you can hear Beethoven's Eroica, which he composed for Napoleon, and the music of other classical masters, while sipping a Pimm's Cup, and basking in an ambiance that could only be New Orleans” (from the restaurant’s web site). (There are those who question the veracity of the Napoleon story, but I like it and am standing by it.)

The building was originally one of the city's finer private residences in the early 19th century, but housed a local grocery at the start of the 20th century. It has been the Napoleon House since the end of Prohibition and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

You walk through the doors and are transported to another century. And the interior looks as though it hadn’t been painted since the nineteenth century. Along the back wall is a two-person dining niche (right in the photo)—just perfect for those wanting privacy for their illicit assignations or more prosaic business meetings. (Chuck has been working on taking photos by holding the camera at waist level to capture a scene in a less noticeable manner. He still needs some work.)

Just to the left is a large bar presided over by a bar tender who is known to be somewhat attitudinal. But he is forgiven since he makes a great Pimm’s Cup. (A cocktail made Pimm’s #1 [a gin-based drink containing quinine and a secret mixture of herbs], lemonade, and 7-Up and garnished with a slice of cucumber.)

I surmise, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the bar is the favorite spot for locals and the courtyard for tourists. (But don’t forget that we are travelers.) And we have learned that if you want a seat in the courtyard, you need to be there early for lunch or dinner or late for lunch or dinner. We opted for an early dinner and found the courtyard almost empty, so we had our choice of tables.

Nothing has changed over the years. And that’s just how the locals want it. The same ancient plants still provide additional shade; the ceiling fans still hum; and opera is still playing over the sound system. And the menu is just as remembered.

You can start with: the Antipasto Salad—olive salad, marinated artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, provolone cheese, Genoa salami, anchovies, and ripe tomatoes; a Cheese Board—six wedges of imported and domestic cheeses, pepperoni slices, fresh fruit, and bread; the Cafe Charcuterie—a selection of patés and sausages garnished with olives, gherkins, fresh bread, and selection of mustards; spinach and artichoke dip; bruschetta; and boudin sausage with Creole mustard.

New Orleans favorites include red beans and rice with smoked sausage, chicken and sausage jambalaya, and seafood gumbo. Poor (their spelling) Boys come with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami, meatballs, corned beef, smoked sausage, or roast beef with gravy.

But our meal of choice is always the Italian Muffuletta made with ham, Genoa salami, pastrami (instead of the more traditional mortadella), Swiss and provolone cheeses and Italian olive salad. “Two things about the Napoleon House muffuletta that makes it the city’s best...the olive salad is way more than just olives and they lightly toast the muffuletta to give it some crunch and barely melt the cheese. Toasting the sandwich brings a little bit of warmth to the mound of bread, gently melts the provolone and Swiss cheeses and draws out a bit of the juices from the various meats, bringing out the flavors that much more. The beauty of the olive salad is it’s more than just olives, with celery, onion, red and green peppers and the occasional carrot piece” (from Well, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

With our half muffuletta, we added a side of jambalaya and a side of red beans and rice. The red beans and rice (left) were rather bland.

On the other hand, the jambalaya (right) had all of the seasoning that the red beans lacked—both from the sausage and the liberal application of bay and thyme.

So after we had devoured the muffuletta and sides, it would be time for dessert. Right?

Actually, no. We decided to share the Cafe Charcuterie which came with two varieties of pate and two varieties of sausage, a grainy Creole mustard, a powerful Dijon-style mustard, olives, gherkins, marinated cherry tomatoes, toast rounds, and fresh bread.

Well, that was gone in a flash and we still didn’t want to leave. How about dessert? How about ordering a cannoli and the day’s dessert special--bread pudding with chocolate rum sauce?

The cannoli had chocolate cream on one end and vanilla cream on the other, and both ends had been dipped in chopped pistachios. It was good, but the bread pudding (below) that contained cinnamon, raisons, and bits of pineapple was divine.

As our meal concluded, I sat back with a sigh and one of the two business men sitting at the table next to us looked over and asked: “Are you from New Orleans?”

“No” I said. And then he commented that we seemed to have perfected the New Orleans art of relaxation.

And that’s what you do at this 5.0 Addie New Orleans legend.

As we left, we noticed these two gentlemen sitting at a table by one of the restaurant's tall shuttered doors along St. Louis Street. They also seem to have mastered that art.

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